Rethinking Torah Education (part three)

In the past two editions of “Thoughts” we discussed Ramban’s – Nachmanides’ – assertion that we are commanded to recall Revelation.  He understands this commandment as an obligation to accept Revelation as a verifiable historical event.  In other words, we must “prove” for ourselves and our children that Revelation took place and that the Torah is authentic.    

Two weeks ago, we discussed whether providing our young people with this foundation, described by Ramban, may support them in resisting the many influences on campus and in the work-place that discourage Torah observance. Last week, we examined the Torah commandment to uproot the idolatrous nations of Canaan.  We also considered the Torah’s directive to the courts to impose consequences – sometimes severe – for violation of its commandments.  We explained that Ramban’s position establishes an ethical basis for these measures.   

This week we will conclude our discussion of Ramban’s position and consider the most common argument against it. 

When there arises from your midst a prophet or dreamer and he provides you [with] a sign or wonder and the sign or wonder that he [fore]told you comes [to be] saying: Let us go after other gods that you did not know and we will worship them.  (Sefer Devarim 13:2-3)

And that prophet or dreamer shall die, for he spoke falsehood against Hashem, your L-rd, Who took you forth from the Land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of bondage, to lead you from the path that Hashem your L-rd commanded you to travel upon.  And you should destroy the evil from in your midst.  (Sefer Devarim 13:6)

I. The False Prophet and his Punishment

Parshat Ekev opened with Moshe’s admonition to observe the Torah’s mishpatim-laws.  Ramban explains that these mishpatim are the consequences imposed by the courts for violation of the Torah’s mitzvot.  We are may not be compassionate and forebear these transgressions.  The courts must enforce the Torah’s mitzvot.  Ramban adds:

“Furthermore, [it is common] that they will fear the mighty and those who mislead.  [This is] as [Moshe] says, ‘Do not be fearful before a person, for justice is the L-rds.’ (Devarim 1:17) And he says regarding the false prophet, ‘Do not be fearful of him.’ (Devarim 18:22)”[1]

Ramban explains that we must not be intimidated by or fear the false prophet.  We must carry out the punishment demanded by the Torah and put him to death.[2]  To more fully understand Ramban’s message, we must review some of the laws regarding a false prophet.

II. Qualifications to be a Prophet

In the passages above, Moshe explains that the false prophet provides a sign or performs wonders.  What is the significance of this sign or wonder?  Rambam – Maimonides – explains that we accept someone to be a true prophet based upon two criteria.  First, the person must be wise and righteous.  Second, he must provide evidence that he is a prophet.  This evidence may be a wonder that he performs.  Alternatively, the evidence may be a sign.  A sign is the prophet’s prediction of events with consistent accuracy.  If these criteria are conclusively met, then we are required to obey the claimant.[3]  We may not challenge his directives or demand further evidence of his legitimacy.[4]

In the above passages, the supposed prophet directs us to serve idols.  He directs us to disregard one of the most fundamental elements of the Torah.  However, the claimant’s directive need not be this outrageous for him to be deemed a false prophet and subject to the penalty of death.  Rambam explains:

“It is a clear and explicit matter in the Torah that it is a commandment for all time…. Therefore, if a person arises, whether from Israel or the nations, and provides a sign or wonder, and says that Hashem sent him to add a commandment or to take away a commandment or to interpret one of the commandments with an interpretation we did not hear from Moshe…, this is a false prophet for he has come to contradict the prophecy of Moshe.  His death is by strangulation…”[5]

III.  The challenge posed by the false prophet

Now, the significance of Ramban’s comments can be more fully appreciated.  Tremendous courage is needed to stand-up to a false prophet.  Imagine a claimant who meets the criteria for being regarded as a prophet.  He is wise and righteous.  He performed a wonder or provided evidence of his prophetic vision through consistently and accurately predicting the future.  He tells us that he has received a prophecy from Hashem.    We are to conscientiously adhere to the ethics and values of the Torah.  However, we are no longer required to observe the commandments as directed by Moshe.  The Torah requires that we confront this wise, religious person who has performed wonders or demonstrated a prophet’s knowledge of the future and bring him to court to be judged and executed.  We may not fear him or allow ourselves to be intimidated by him.

IV. The False Prophets Internal Contradiction

Rambam recognizes that the Torah’s directive seems paradoxical.  We trust in prophecy.  Yet, if a prophecy contradicts the Torah received through Moshe, it is assumed to be spurious.  Why is Moshe’s prophecy more reliable than the words of another supposed prophet?

Rambam responds with an argument which draws upon the same reasoning developed by Ramban. The authenticity of Moshe’s prophecy is not dependent upon his performance of wonders or his prediction of events.  Moshe’s prophecy was established through the Sinai Revelation.  Revelation is an historically established event.  It is a “proven” event.[6]

Rambam further develops this point.  He explains that we accept the legitimacy of a claimant who provides a sign or wonder.  This is not because this wonder or sign is absolute evidence of the claimant’s authenticity.  We accept the sign or wonder as evidence only because it meets a standard established by the Torah.  A claimant who contradicts the Torah – Moshe’s prophecy – has entered into an inherent contradiction.  His claim to legitimacy is based solely upon the Torah’s authority.  The Torah creates the standard upon which he relies to establish his authenticity. Yet, he contradicts the Torah and denies Moshe’s assertion that the commandments are for all time and cannot be amended.[7]

V. Opponents to the “Rationalist” Approach

Both Ramban and Rambam maintain that the Torah’s authority derives from Revelation.  They regard Revelation is a verifiable historical event.  Because Revelation is “proven” it provides a firm foundation for the commandments of the Torah.  Revelation provides the ethical basis for the courts to punish those who violate the commandments.  It is the ethical basis for uprooting the nations of Canaan from the Land of Israel.  One who claims a prophecy that contradicts the Torah received at Revelation is deemed to be a false prophet and subject to death.  Ramban and Rambam present and support a perspective popularly described as a rationalist approach.[8]

This approach has been championed by Torah scholars throughout the generations.  However, it has also been controversial.  One of the early attacks was developed by Rav Yosef Yavetz.  Rav Yavetz was exiled from Spain in the Expulsion of 1492 and resettled in Italy.  He observed that those Jews whose observance was based upon philosophical arguments were the first to succumb to the pressures of the impending Expulsion and converted to Christianity.  Simpler people whose commitment was based upon pure faith proved the more steadfast and chose to endure the Expulsion rather than betray the Torah.[9]

Rav Yavetz’s position is that rational argument and simple faith are alternative means to a common end – commitment to the Torah.  The test of the preferable means is efficacy.  Which is most likely to sustain a person in challenging circumstances?  Rav Yavetz responds that his observations during the Expulsion confirm that simple faith is the more efficacious foundation for Torah commitment.  How might Ramban, Ramban, and their camp respond to this argument?

VI. Acknowledging Simple Faith

Before considering their response, it is important to acknowledge that we owe an immense debt to those who endured the Expulsion and remained committed to the Torah.  Their suffering ensured the survival of the Torah traditions of Spain.  Without their steadfast loyalty to the Torah, the survival of Torah Judaism would have been placed in jeopardy.  The issue under consideration is not whether the generation of the Expulsion acted courageously or whether we are indebted to it.  The issue under consideration is whether the efficacy of simple belief proves that it is a superior foundation for observance.

VII.  A Troubling Question

Let’s begin by considering a troubling question.  The Torah explains that Avraham was tested by Hashem.  He was commanded to sacrifice his son Yitzchak.  Avraham was asked to place his love and devotion to Hashem above his love for his long-awaited son.  Avraham demonstrated his willingness to sacrifice his son.  The Torah presents this episode as evidence of Avraham’s remarkable commitment.

In November 1970 over 900 people died in Jonestown, Guyana after intentionally drinking poison at the direction of their cult leader, Jim Jones. One third of the victims were children who were poisoned by or under the direction of their parents.  The incident demonstrates that individuals whose thinking is dominated by fanatical beliefs can make enormous sacrifices on behalf of their convictions.  They can sacrifice their own lives and those of their children.  How was Avraham’s willingness to sacrifice Yitzchak different from the actions of the Jonestown fanatics?  Why do we regard the members of the Jonestown community as fatally deluded and Avraham as a hero?

According to Rav Yavetz’s argument, it is impossible to distinguish between the disturbed behavior of the Jonestown community and the righteousness of Avraham.  Both demonstrated absolute commitment to their values. Rav Yavetz argues that rational argument and simple faith are both valid means to an end.  Implicit in this argument is that commitment does not require an objective, rational foundation.  One whose commitment is based upon simple faith does not and cannot provide a rational basis for this commitment.  The person is moved by heart not mind.  This person’s religious truth is completely subjective.  Objectively, it is not more or less valid than the faith of the Jonestown community.  Therefore, according to Rav Yavetz, we are confronted with a dilemma.  How do we distinguish between these fanatics and our greatest Patriarch, Avraham?  How do we distinguish between the Jews whose faith enabled them to endure the Expulsion and their persecutors who were also guided by their faith?

VIII.  Understanding Avraham’s Test

Once we put aside Rav Yavetz’s perspective, the difference between Avraham and the Jonestown community is obvious.  Avraham’s actions were not in response to simple faith.  He acted according to a system of ideas and thought.  He overcame one of our most basic instincts – love for our children – because of his commitment to a system of ideas.  People are driven to remarkable extremes by simple faith.  The heart is an effective, even overpowering, motivator.  Guiding one’s life according to a system of ideas – by the dictates of the mind – is far more difficult.  This was the essence of Avraham’s trail.

IX. The Rationalist Approach is not a Means to an End

How would Rambam, Ramban, and like-thinkers respond to Rav Yavetz’s argument?  It is likely that their response would be aimed at Rav Yavetz’s premise – that rational argument and simple faith are both means to a shared end of commitment to the Torah.  Our analysis of Ramban and Rambam indicates that they would not accept this premise.  They argue that the Torah demands more than our obedience.  It demands that we live according to objective truths.  We are obligated to establish for ourselves the objective truth of the Torah.

Rav Yavetz may be correct that many Spanish Jews failed the trail of the Expulsion because they were unable to remain loyal to these objective truths and those who acting on simple faith proved more steadfast in their commitment to the Torah.  However, efficacy does not prove that simple faith is superior to commitment based upon rational argument.  According to Ramban and Rambam, observance based upon simple faith is qualitatively different than observance based upon objective truth.  It falls short to the Torah’s expectation.

[1] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 7:12.

[2] The passages above discuss a claimant of prophecy who directs the people to serve other gods.  According to Rambam, the false prophet and the prophet of idolatry are the subjects of separate sets of commandments.  Parshat Re’eh focuses upon the prophet of idolatry.  Our discussion will focus upon the false prophet.

[3] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishnah Torah, Hilchot De’ot 7:7 and 10:1-2.

[4] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishnah Torah, Hilchot De’ot 10:5.

[5] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishnah Torah, Hilchot De’ot 9:1.

[6] For discussion of this issue see the first installment in this series: “Thoughts” Parshat VaEtchanan 5778.

[7] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishnah Torah, Hilchot De’ot 8:2-3.

[8] It is sometimes assumed that this approach was championed by a few authorities but not embraced by the majority of traditional scholars.  This is not the case. A survey of the scholars of the period of the Geonim and Rishonim demonstrates the predominance of the Ramban and Rambam’s perspective.  These scholars dispute many aspects of the Torah’s philosophy and come to different conclusions.  However, they share a single analytical methodology.

[9] Rav Pinchas Yehudah Leiberman, Commentary Lev Tov on Chovot HaLevavot, Introduction.